What goes down must come...out? The imperfect art of leaf litter bed maintenance.

As those of us who play with botanicals in our aquairums know, there's more to this stuff than just the pretty 'scape, a pile of leaves, and tinted-water "glam shots" you see on Instagram. There's a lot of process, function, and science involved in making one of these tanks work over the long haul. Like, maintenance.

Mundane, I know...

If you've started working with botanicals  in your tanks over the past few months, you've probably gained an awareness that, although these are unique and aesthetically beautiful aquariums, like any other methodology, they are not "set and forget" systems. Because of the very nature of aquatic botanicals and how they interact with their environment, you need to regularly evaluate the aquarium, and   replace the botanicals as needed.

Leaves and botanicals are ephemeral in nature- they're not permanent fixtures in our aquaria.

You'll need to understand the progression of things that happen as your tank establishes itself. And, perhaps most important, you'll need to make some mental "adjustments" to accept and appreciate this different aesthetic.

Also, you'll have to get used to a certain amount of material breaking down in your tank. It's natural, and part of the aesthetic. Accepting the fact that you'll see biofilms, fungal growth, and even some algae in your system is something that many aquarists have a difficult time with. As we've discussed numerous times here, it goes against our "aesthetic upbringing" with regards to what an "attractive, healthy-looking tank" is! 

We have learned to understand and appreciate this stuff, and to This is not an excuse to develop or accept lax maintenance practices. It's simply a "call to awareness" that there is probably nothing wrong with your system when you see this stuff. It's quite contrary to the way we've been "trained" to evaluate the aesthetics of a typical aquarium.

Observe underwater videos and photos of environments such as the Amazonian region, etc. and you'll see that your tank is a much closer aesthetic approximation of Nature than almost any other type of system you've worked with before. This is a significant thing, really.

And, to your comfort, you'll find that these systems are as "chemically clean" as any other if you follow regular maintenance and common sense.

So, what are we thinking about regular maintenance?

Well, for one thing, water exchanges. I'll keep it relatively brief on this topic: 

What’s a good water changing regimen?

I’d love to see you employ 10% per week...It’s what I’ve used for decades, and it’s served me- and my animals- very well! Easier still would be to employ two 5% water changes twice weekly. Way easier than you think, and has the added advantage of keeping you in intimate contact with your tank on a very frequent basis. And, when you’re changing water, you could easily complete a few other regular maintenance tasks at the same time with a minimum of extra time and effort.

Regardless of how frequently you change your water, just do it consistently. In fact, I’ll humbly borrow a line from Nike to tell you to “Just do it...”

And of course, this inevitably leads to the topic of siphoning. How much "stuff" do you remove? Doesn't it disturb the leaf litter/botanical bed?And SHOULD you even remove it? Well, it's a personal preference thing, really.

Consider the function of natural leaf litter beds, and the processes which influence their composition and structure. Many litter beds are long-term static features in their natural habitats. Almost like reefs! However, there is a fair amount of materials being shifted around by current, rain, flooding, and the activities of fishes. Stuff does get disturbed and redistributed.

The benthic microfauna which our fishes tend to feed on also are affected by this phenomenon, and as mentioned above, the fishes tend to "follow the food", making this a case of the fishes learning (?) to adapt to a changing environment. And perhaps...maybe...the idea of fishes sort of having to constantly adjust to a changing physical (note I didn't say "chemical") environment could be some sort of "trigger", hidden deep in their genetic code, that perhaps stimulates overall health, immunity or spawning?

Something in their "programing" that says, "You're at home..." Triggering specific adaptive behaviors?

I find this possibility fascinating, because we can learn more about our fishes' behaviors, and create really interesting habitats for them simply by adding botanicals to our aquariums and allowing them to "do their own thing"- to break apart as they decompose, move about as we change water or conduct maintenance activities, or add new pieces from time to time.

Again, much like Nature.

Like any environment, leaf litter beds have their own "rhythm", fostering substantial communities of fishes. The dynamic behind this biotope can best be summarized in this interesting excerpt from an academic paper on Blackwater leaf-litter communities by biologist Peter Alan Henderson, that is useful for those of us attempting to replicate these communities in our aquaria:

"..life within the litter is not a crowded, chaotic scramble for space and food. Each species occupies a sub-region defined by physical variables such as flow and oxygen content, water depth, litter depth and particle size…

...this subtle subdivision of space is the key to understanding the maintenance of diversity. While subdivision of time is also evident with, for example, gymnotids hunting by night and cichlids hunting by day, this is only possible when each species has its space within which to hide.”

Of course, the aquarium is a microcosm of Nature, and not an open system. However, in principle, many of the factors which control Nature control our aquariums, too. SOem are a bit different in "execution", but the influence is similar. 

So, back to siphoning. 

Personally, I don't do a lot of siphoning of "detritus" from my substrates, which are typically a fish-mash of leaves, twigs, and bits and pieces of botanicals. Sure, you CAN stir up this layer, and simply "swish" a fine meshed net around in the water column, and try to remove anything you find offensive.

I wouldn't get too carried away with it. 

Remember, most of this "stuff"- the detritus and such- is utilized by organisms throughout the food chain in your tank...and as such, is a "fuel" for the biological processes we are so interested in. No sense disrupting them, right?

What goes down...doesn't always have to come up.

Take care of your tank by taking care of the enormous microcosm which supports its form and function. 

The surest path to success with botanical-style, blackwater aquariums, as we've stressed repeatedly, is to move slowly and incrementally. Sure, one you gain experience, you'll know how far you can "push it", but, quite frankly- Nature doesn't really care about your "experience"- if the conditions aren't right and the bacteria in your system cannot accommodate a rapid significant increase in bioload, she'll kick your ass like a personal trainer!

Just go slowly. Change water regularly. Go easy on the siphoning, okay?

Respect Nature. Learn from her.

Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay inquisitive. Stay humble. Stay curious. Stay diligent.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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